Ceci n’est pas une pipe

Imagine people losing their eyesight in massive numbers for no apparent reason, without any additional symptoms, while their eyes remain perfectly healthy. Imagine someone just turned off a feature of the brain responsible for vision and left you in an abysmal void. Why not a perfect subject-matter for fiction novel?

The epidemic of mass blindness has been previously used as the basis of the plot – for example – in a post-apocalyptic novel by John Wyndham, “The Day of the Triffids.” Yet in this particular case we have a parable, rather than a traditional novel; on top of that, a parable with some rather apparent biblical roots – i.e. the story of Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of Christians, who got blind for three days by God’s will, and then saw the light at first metaphorically and then literally, thus becoming Paul the Apostle. It would be fair to say that a parable is far from being a perfect genre: the main objective for the author of the parable is not the plot, but rather a peculiar ‘message of the wisdom’ he/she is trying to convey to the reader. Yet, if at the same time, the reader knows in advance (or thinks that he/she knows) what exactly the author is trying to convey to him/her, the parable loses all its elegance from the very beginning and becomes rather mundane. Finally, the whole brilliance of the parable as a genre lays in its brevity, whereas Saramago’s narration style is extremely verbose. Should we perhaps shift from the stylistic features to the content?

The first two-thirds of the novel is the traditional story of how people caught in extreme circumstances, are quickly losing civilized appearance. Matching the storyline with the well-known classics, we might recall “Lord of the Flies.” Much like on Golding’s island, evil prevails in the mental hospital Saramago creates, and a typical, exceptionally cruel dictatorship takes control, which, however, does not last long; since the dictatorship doesn’t manage to address the eternal question of ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ in timely manner, the ‘blindness’ gets out of the quarantine facilities and spreads further on.


The idea of sight without vision and vision without sight is one of the undercurrents of this text – by conceptually separating the two, we are able to distinguish between what we can ‘sense’ and what we can ‘feel’, a distinction that is hard to interpret. Sight is apparently important for foresight, and social stability is contingent on how well we are able to perceive the state of society. Hence there is a primal drive to establish chaotic order in the face of scarcity and fear, leading to repression, violence, and selfishness – all factors that diminish the possibility of stemming the contagion through a collaborative effort. Saramago tackles the centrality to which uncertainty factors into our decision to live within a society – and an epidemic of blindness, whose cause is unknown, makes it a fascinating yet grim tale.

While the loss of sight had brought chaos to the society and changed the way people interact in daily basis, the physical blindness lets the characters realize that they were as blind before the physical blindness as they are now–the sight without vision. They realize the importance of little things they take for granted everyday as well as the reality of human nature unveiled as the society breaks down. The “white sickness” might have blurred everyone’s sight, but it has cleared the nature of human interaction that was hidden and veiled by technology, society, and organizations. This leads us to several questions: what is the meaning of blindness in the novel? Were people always blind? Are some people less blind than others? Is the real human nature only revealed in the midst of plague, disease, or in this novel, blindness?

The reason of blindness is unknown, and like the plague, the contagion of blindness does not have a preference when choosing its next victim. The blindness in this sense is equal to everyone, and as time goes, people realize that they will all become physically blind at some point. What differentiates this “white sickness” from disease or plague, however, is that it inflicts people without killing them, thus making them a different kind of “invalids.” In order to live, they have to be dependent on each other and collaborate. It is interesting to observe how the characters distinguish, judge, and build trust with each other with voice and personality without their looks. Is this state of interactions more or less natural than normal full of pretenses and facades? What we consider natural or take for granted as the truth might not be as real as we had thought.

– Suel, Kefa, Kee

Camus wrap-up

Greetings from death’s door. Apologies for the loss of a day’s discussion, but my hope is that putting some of your thoughts down here will allow us to still get some closure on this novel.

Last time we finished by reading several paragraphs surrounding the death of M. Othon’s son. Our first task today was going to be a close examination of the language of that scene. You’re welcome to offer your thoughts about that specifically, but I’m also interested in posing some questions that would situate this as one in a series of death scenes, including Paneloux’s and Tarrou’s, and some off-stage deaths, including Rieux’s wife and M. Othon. Why does each of these characters die? (“We’re all going to die” isn’t an adequate answer, at least not without some elaboration.)

I also intended for us to discuss two further sections in detail: the swimming scene near the close of Part Four, and the conclusion, beginning with Rieux’s confession of authorship on p. 301. These two moments are linked by the ghost of Tarrou, we could say. How do you read the swimming scene (consider specific details)? And how do you read Rieux’s confession. Earlier in our discussion I referred to the “problem of the narrator” and Kefa suggested we might actually think of it as a solution instead. Either way, how do you read Camus’ choice here to to have the narrator wait until the last minute to disclose his identity? Or to draw, for so much of his narrative, on another character’s plague diaries?

Finally, I want to return to an issue Diana raised in class last time — the question of relativism. Is that a fair description of this novel’s ethics? If not, how else would you describe the kind of living this text seems to advocate? Are all the characters’ responses to the plague equally valid? I’d like to hear what you make of Grand’s closing comments, especially this: “But what does that mean — ‘plague’? Just life, no more that that.”

[Illustration via]

For the Practicing Absurdist…

I’ve stumbled upon the Absurdist Monthly Review.

They have a nice selection of absurdist quotes, including this particularly relevant one by Eugene Ionesco:
“No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute. It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.”Not even the most efficient bureaucracy (in The Plague’s case, a French colonial bureaucracy) can alleviate the nearness of death that all of its citizens feel in their lives.

Of course, the Absurdist Monthly Review also has, well, monthly reviews of absurdist art and literature (which are downloadable from the site). So check it out for a window into a modern niche of absurdism!

Persistence of Yersinia Pestis

According to this semi-scientific article, Yersinia Pestis, the agent of the plague in the 1940s in Oran, still existed in the same place in Algeria when the article was written in 2006:

“Rieux, the hero of Albert Camus in “La Peste,” aimed to relate the events of the plague outbreak in Oran in the 1940s with the highest objectivity. He stated that “the virus” of plague can come back 1 day and he asked to be aware when it did. Apparently plague has retired but is waiting in numerous foci and could reemerge, as it did in India during the 1990s. The “comeback” of plague in the region of Oran occurred in June 2003. In this study, we detected Y. pestis in rodent fleas collected from September 2004 to May 2005 in the same area as those plague cases occurred. Our results confirm that Y. pestis infection is still present in Algeria. The persistence of zoonotic foci of plague is worrying since persons living in these areas remain in close contact with rodents and fleas. Despite the absence of new cases since June 2003, the risk for further outbreaks remains high. Surveillance should be maintained to monitor this natural focus and potential spread resulting from climatic or habitat influences. A strong case could be made to extend surveillance to adjacent countries such as Libya and Mauritania, which also have natural foci of plague, according to the World Health Organization. In conclusion we believe that detection of Y. pestis in fleas can be a useful tool for epidemiologic surveillance of plague in specific settings and could thus serve to study the risk for reemergence of the disease.”

Why recommend it

I found a nice video of recommenadtion and I could not agree with him more. He also puts the emphasis on the philosophy behind the novel and the idea of “how one should live”. It is worth listening to his point of view. I believe this book may make some readers gain a new perspective about their attitude towards life.

Less connected to this post but: Rats are now cute and many people consider them to be pets. Times change. It is interesting.

La Peste

Camus’s plague, set in the 1940s, offers a modern and human interpretation of an age-old disease—the bubonic plague.

 

While dead rats litter the city and people die in masses, the townspeople of Oran do not initially feel worried for their safety. They have no way of judging how grave the sickness is compared to their community’s norm. This changes, though, after a sermon is delivered by Father Paneloux, cautioning the inhabitants of Oran against behaviors that brought on the plague, and advising them to offer up loving, devotional prayers and trust that God will relieve the town when he deems fit. The sermon alleges that God became ‘wearied of waiting for you to come to Him” and thus “loosed on you this visitation” (Camus, 97).  In so bland and ordinary a town, a change to piety could not have proven difficult. Paneloux reveals, however, that the mundane city’s ignorant, mercantile existence brought on a pestilence far from ordinary. After this reproaching sermon, the general panic set in. And why did this general panic set in only after a religious sermon?

 

 

 

Religion can offer comfort in finding solid answers rather than in furthering questions. In times of perilous pestilence, people turn to religion to comfort their fears and to attempt to regain a feeling of control over their lives. The plague ravages the lives of most individuals in Oran, disrupting both family and romantic relationships, trade, and travel. If Paneloux ties the visitation to a dearth of appreciation and devotion to God, then a return to religion is in a way an avenue that promises to rectify the bleak situation in the city and gives people something to do in the meantime.

 

On the other hand, religion serves to alienate as much as it does to unite. “To some the sermon simply brought home the fact that they had been sentenced, for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment.” Divine wrath is particularly confusing for many who did not see their lives and city as sinful. Rieux, however, (among others), takes a more humanist approach to the disease. He argues that not even priests believe in an all-powerful god. Utilizing, then, “creation as he found it,” Rieux takes on the human burden of curing a pestilence through mortal and scientific means.

 

Under Dr. Rieux’s scientific ideals, though, the town is put under quarantine and interaction with the outside world is completely severed. For the average citizen, being trapped inside the city’s diseased walls created an overwhelming feeling of despair and alienation.  Many tried vainly to continue their normal lives, but this proved impossible. During the height of summer, the coasts were closed, shops were vacant, and the blazing sun was the only visitor upon Oran’s once-busy streets. The weather, ironically, became a central facet of the community. Even the slightest breeze or cool spell was enough to send throngs into fits of merriment and debauchery.

 

Arguably, the separation of loved ones created the strongest melancholy among Oran’s citizens. Many had presumed that short distances apart could never prove permanent obstacles. However, the breakneck implementation of quarantine was a shocking wake-up for many. Isolated lovers mourned, though, in a different way than the average despairing citizen. Their preoccupation with romance prevented them from being generally affected by the idea of plague:

 

“The egoism of love made them immune to the general distress and, if they thought of the plague, it was only in so far as it might threaten to make their separation eternal” (Camus, 76-77).

 

The narrator notes how during separation thoughts would often drift to loved ones and the inability to picture one’s beloved could prove unbearable. The quarantine required telegrams to be short, mail to cease, and telephone use to be practically non-existent. So, while the plague ravaged Oran, distraught lovers felt a pain all their own.

We’re guessing that Skype could have made a lot of money in Oran…

 

These particular feelings of alienation are very important regarding the novel’s characters. Rambert, a reporter from Paris, wants to escape his isolation within Oran. He wants special treatment because he does not live in Oran, but the quarantine is not lifted for him. Rambert begins to roam around the town aimlessly, even sitting for extended periods in train stations with no trains. Rambert is not afflicted with the pestilence during these bouts of roaming, yet he is afflicted with a direct effect of the plague – a somber feeling due to separation from his home and his beloved. The separating effects of the plague lead to emotional changes in Rambert, as well as in other townspeople who go unnamed.

 

Dr. Rieux suffers similarly. His wife, recovering from another sickness in a sanatorium, is outside the city. While the doctor battles daily for the lives of others, he receives no personal solace.

 

The Plague, overall, is groundbreaking in its human examinations of a modern populous. The Black Death, often assumed to be an artifact of medieval Europe, has come again with a vengeance. Its victims are no longer isolated peasants. Instead, they are 20th century human beings–human beings with telephones, with automobiles, with all the amenities of modern life. Shocking, though, is that even this modernity is useless under the pretext of so brutal an epidemic.

—Diana & Allen

Besides the analysis above, here are a few other topics we thought could serve as jumping off points for discussion:

–       how Grand’s novel serves to distract him from the plague and the emotions it evokes

–       What is gained by the reader regarding the narrator’s ambiguity at the onset of the novel? Is the story more trustworthy in third person with interspersed elements of other accounts and figures versus a first person narrative with the same elements?

–       “Reckless extravagance” and advertisements of sterilization as results of the plague

 

Ultimate Irony

Saint Aschenbach in the Purgatory of Sex and Art

What Aschenbach as artist fails to accomplish, the fusion of Dionysian revelry with Apollinian form, Mann himself does accomplish in this novella. The passion and instinctual power the novella thematizes is held in check by the careful formal organization, the stylistic distance, the rational control of Mann’s narrator. (c)

..and much more for “Death in Venice” discussion prep for tomorrow can be found here.

Pederasty in Ancient Greece–It was natural back then!

I found this interesting introduction about Greek pederasty. Before tomorrow’s discussion about whether Aschenbach’s love of Tadzio is that of an artist or a pedophile, I thought it would be a good start to read about the origin of today’s so-called pedophilia/homosexuality. The video below is the story of Ganymede, who is often used as a symbol of beautiful male youth who attracts homosexual desire.